A Texas Town Nervously Awaits a New Neighbor

Published: August 21, 2005, New York Times

GREENVILLE, Tex. - "Blackest Land, Whitest People." Until the mid-1960's, those
words were painted on the water tower and on a sign near the square in this
North Texas town, a once-segregated cotton-ginning center. Joe A. Bobbitt, the
county judge in Greenville, still has photographs of the water tower and the
sign on the wall of his office here.

"It's part of our infamy," said Judge Bobbitt, 59, seated in a large red leather
chair stitched together by inmates of the Texas penal system. "If you try to
hide history, then you cannot change."

The people of Hunt County, a largely rural area of which Greenville is the
county seat, are about to get a rare opportunity to break with the past. The
Redeemed Christian Church of God is a fast-growing evangelical church with
mostly black adherents but that espouses a multicultural mission. Founded in
Lagos, Nigeria, in 1952, it is building its North American headquarters on the
outskirts of Greenville.

The church's goal, according to its mission statement, is to establish parishes
within five minutes' driving distance of every family in every city and town in
the United States. It is now about 250 parishes closer to its goal.

The church has paid more than $1 million for about 500 acres of land in Floyd,
an unincorporated community of about 100 people, almost all of them white, a
few miles from Greenville.

A conference center has already been erected in the middle of farmland planted
with sorghum and wheat. There is also a trailer for visits by Enoch Adejare
Adeboye, who is the general overseer of the church and is called Daddy by its
more than 2 million members.

Next to be built, church officials say, are cottages, a large dormitory, a
10,000-seat sanctuary, an amphitheater, an artificial lake and perhaps even a
modest water park. The complex, which is intended to evoke Redemption City, the
church's 18,000-acre global headquarters near Lagos, is to be completed in the
next decade.

The church's parishes regularly send 20 percent of their tithes to headquarters,
and much of the money will go toward the construction to the North Texas
complex, informally called Redemption Camp.

Ajibike Akinkoye, the regional church leader in Dallas, said in a telephone
interview that God spoke to him about a decade ago, telling him that he needed
to "plant" small churches throughout the Dallas area instead of building a
single megachurch, and that the church should have a large "camp" in Texas.

The combination of inexpensive land in Hunt County and its proximity to Dallas,
about an hour away by car, were too good to pass up, said Mr. Akinkoye, who is
also the chief executive of Dove Media, the church company that oversees its
television, radio, Internet and publishing ventures.

Some residents of Floyd, a smattering of trailer homes and decaying bungalows
that a century ago was a thriving cotton-growing town on a railroad, speak
uneasily about their new neighbor. They have already seen bumper-to-bumper
traffic, and the Caddo Basin Special Utility District has extended an
eight-inch water line to the church property.

"The Nigerians I've seen on TV are dark, really dark, not like the black people
around here," said Tina Causey, 69, a house cleaner who lives in Floyd with her
husband, a post office employee. "I'm not a racist, I've got Mexican

Ms. Causey said she did not want to see any group dominate. "I just don't like a
majority of anybody," she said.

Jesse Isham, 72, a retired factory worker who spends his summer afternoons
tending a garden of melons, sweet potatoes and corn, echoed that sentiment. Mr.
Isham said he had "nothing against black people," but "I just don't like some of
their ways, like the ones who do drugs."

He continued, "As long as they behave themselves it'll be fine."

For the pastors of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, the residents of rural
Texas present an opportunity to evangelize. The ambition of the church, as
stated on its Web site and repeated by its pastors, is "to make heaven; to take
as many people as possible with us; and to have a member of R.C.C.G. in every
family of all nations." That mission, of course, includes white Americans.

A new member of the church, Marti Garner, 57, grew up in Hunt County. She and
her husband sold the Nigerians one of their first parcels of land several years
ago. Ms. Garner, who is white and whose uncle was in the Ku Klux Klan, said she
had an appreciation for the church's multiethnic approach.

"It doesn't matter what color you are," said Ms. Garner, an assistant pastor
with plans for her own parish about a mile from the church's complex. "I was
raised in Greenville, where they had that sign, and this is proof we can get
past that."

Nigerian immigrants are not new to Texas. Many have sought out the state because
of the balmy temperatures it shares with their home country in West Africa. But
most Nigerians have remained in large cities. Houston has some 40,000
Nigerian-born residents, and Dallas, where the church has maintained a regional
base for several years, has about 10,000.

John Omewah, a pastor at one of the Dallas parishes, brushed past the concern
expressed by some people who live near the church's land in Floyd.

"They're just trying to resist something that is new," Mr. Omewah, 52, said in
an interview in an office bedecked with the flags of the United States and
Nigeria and posters explaining the church's mission. "There is a tendency among
us human beings to resist change," said Mr. Omewah, a Nigerian who recently
moved to Texas from Delaware, where he had overseen another parish.

African evangelical churches like the Redeemed Christian Church of God have not
limited their growth objectives to the United States. One church, the Embassy
of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations, has expanded its parishes in the
former Soviet Union, in countries including Ukraine, Tajikistan and Belarus. The
Kingsway International Christian Center, founded in Britain by a Nigerian-born
pastor, has a 4,000-seat auditorium in London.

Dana L. Robert, a professor of world mission at Boston University, said the
church's plans for rural Texas resembled efforts of European and American
missionaries in Africa more than a century ago, with white missionaries often
envisioning the need for a mission station from which to plan their forays.

African evangelicals view rich industrialized nations, where secularism and
materialism have replaced churchgoing for many people, as natural places to
expand, she said.

"The Nigerians often come to the United States with higher education levels than
other immigrants," Ms. Robert said. "They don't have an inferiority complex.
They are not afraid of speaking to people unlike themselves."

Some residents of Floyd, especially those who grew up after segregation ended,
suggest that greater interaction with their new neighbors might not be all that

"People are people, that's all I can say," said Katrina Saunders, 38, a clerk at
the town's lone gas station. Ms. Saunders said she was more concerned about
whether the church resembled a cult or a sect like the Branch Davidians that
engaged in a 1993 standoff with federal agents in Waco, Tex.

"It's going to be difficult for some, but me, as long as they're not another
Waco, they have as much a right to be here as we do," she said.